While President Obama this week opened the door to oil and gas drilling in large swaths off the U.S. coastline, the specifics of which areas actually might be leased will be slowly decided over the next two or more years.
Although Obama proposed new areas in the Atlantic and eastern Gulf of Mexico for potential development, they will "not necessarily" be open to oil and gas development in the next five-year drilling program that takes effect in July 2012, the Interior Department said.
Decisions on whether to schedule lease sales in these areas, and whether to close parts of planning areas with conflicting uses -- such as military training, shipping lanes or areas of particular sensitivity -- will be made during the lengthy process of developing the new five-year program and during pre-sale procedures.
That process begins with an environmental analysis to evaluate offering all or portions of offshore areas for leasing from 2012 to 2017, including tracts off the Atlantic Coast, the Gulf of Mexico and Arctic waters off Alaska.
The analysis, required under the National Environmental Policy Act, will include gathering scientific and environmental information and holding public meetings to help determine which areas may be appropriate for leasing.
An area must be analyzed in the environmental impact statement (EIS) in order to be considered for leasing, but some of the areas analyzed might not end up in the final leasing program. That final program will set forth a schedule for lease sales and determine which areas will be included.
The first lease sale under the program would take place in 2012, Minerals Management Service spokesman Nicholas Pardi said. It usually takes roughly two years for drilling to begin after a lease sale, Pardi added.
That means it would be at least 2014 before drilling might occur in any of the areas newly proposed for exploration and development. Areas where industry already is familiar with the petroleum geology, like the western and central Gulf of Mexico, might move more quickly, Pardi said.
Much of the eastern Gulf of Mexico is subject to a congressional moratorium until 2022, so Congress would need to act to allow leasing in those areas. But Interior said its goal is to schedule lease sales in the eastern gulf for the 2012-2017 program.
The EIS will consider alternatives that may include increasing or decreasing the number or frequency of sales, coastal buffers, limiting areas available for leasing and excluding parts of or entire planning areas.
Specifically, the draft EIS will evaluate offering eight offshore planning areas for leasing including the Beaufort Sea, Chukchi Sea and Cook Inlet offshore Alaska; the western and central Gulf of Mexico and the eastern gulf at least 125 miles off the Florida coast; and the south and mid-Atlantic Coast, from Delaware to central Florida.
From today through June 30, Interior will accept public comments to help determine the appropriate scope of the EIS in terms of geographical areas and issues. In June and early July public meetings will be held in coastal locations in Alaska, Louisiana, Alabama, Florida, Georgia and/or North Carolina, Virginia, New Jersey and/or Delaware and Washington, D.C.
"The scoping process for the 2012-2017 program will provide opportunities to hear from local communities who depend on tourism, tribes whose livelihoods depend on the sea, and scientists who can tell us where the risks of development are simply too great and which areas are just too sensitive to drill," Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said.
According to MMS estimates, 39 billion to 63 billion barrels of economically recoverable oil and 168 trillion to 294 trillion cubic feet of natural gas are economically recoverable from the eight planning areas under consideration for leasing under the 2012-2017 program. That represents as much as 80 percent of the undiscovered, economically recoverable oil and gas on the U.S. outer continental shelf, Interior said.
Environmental issues that MMS will consider include the effects of the offshore program on climate change, potential impacts from accidental oil spills, potential impacts to tourism and recreation activities, and ecological impacts from potential degradation of marine and coastal habitats.
The entire West Coast, the Atlantic Coast from New Jersey northward, the straits of Florida and Bristol Bay off Alaska will not be included in the EIS and will remain closed to drilling.
Separately, Interior will prepare a programmatic EIS for geological and geophysical exploration in the mid- and south-Atlantic outer continental shelf, because much less information is known about the resources there than in other areas. That analysis will evaluate potential environmental effects of renewable energy projects, oil and gas exploration, and marine minerals extraction.
MMS estimates it also will finish that analysis by mid-2012.
Click here to read the notice of intent to prepare an environmental impact statement for the 2012-2017 offshore program.